Jun 7, 2022, Lian Buan
‘The accused were acting within their rights when they went outside of their respective residences to plea for food,’ says QC Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 38 of the San Roque 21
MANILA, Philippines – After two years of trial, a Quezon City court cleared 21 residents of an urban poor community in Barangay San Roque of quarantine violation charges, as it ruled that pleading for food during the height of pandemic lockdown was “within their rights.”
“The accused were acting within their rights when they went outside of their respective residences to plea for food. Therefore, the police officers, at the time they confronted the accused and under the circumstances established in this case, cannot compel the latter to obey their directive to go home,” QC Metropolitan Trial Court (MeTC) Branch 38 Judge John Boomsri Sy Rodolfo said in an order dated June 6 but received by lawyers of the so-called San Roque 21 on Tuesday, June 7.
The urban poor residents were arrested in April 2020 after a violent dispersal of a protest for food aid in the height of a lockdown on Metro Manila due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were arrested, jailed for five days, and charged for violating quarantine for being outside of their homes.
The laws used to charge them were Republic Act No. 11332, or what has been called a “broad” law against non-cooperation in a public health emergency; BP 880 that bans illegal assembly; and Article 151 that bans disobedience to authorities.
The judge junked the case on demurrer, meaning an outright dismissal without requiring the defense to present their evidence. Still, the case took two years, and the San Roque 21 endured trial even when other similar cases were being junked by different courts and prosecutors because of the law being broad.
The use of the law was a directive of the Department of Justice.
President Rodrigo Duterte was miffed by the San Roque rally to the point of saying “shoot them dead,” referring to anyone who would disobey law enforcers implementing quarantine prohibitions.
Strangers, including celebrities, pitched in so that the residents could post P15,000 bail each. The bail money was ordered returned.
“Let this case not be remembered for the inhumanity of the Duterte administration’s grossly disproportionate and incongruent response to a public health problem; let it stand testament to the enduring spirit of bayanihan in each one of us,” said the lawyers of San Roque 21.
They also said: “Political repression always thrives on fear and sheer might. But with the law in our favor, the people should always have the right to reason and resist. The decision by the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 38 gives us faith in the courts to correct grave inequities.”
The thorn of RA 11332
The judge did not go into a full explanation of what acts are supposed to be covered by RA 11332. A young law, passed by Duterte only in 2018 to authorize the health secretary to declare epidemics, RA 11332 was used for various protocol lapses under the clause “non-cooperation.” Cases eventually failed as in the case of Senator Koko Pimentel who went to the hospital to accompany his wife even while still awaiting the results of his COVID-19 test. He later learned he was positive while he was already inside the hospital.
For the San Roque 21, the judge said: “While others simply lined up in groceries and supermarkets to get food during Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the accused in these cases, unfortunately were constrained to publicly plea and beg for food. Clearly, the accused’s attempt and effort to secure food at the start of the ECQ is not covered by Section 9(e) of RA 11332.”
Charges of violating the law on public assembly, and disobedience to authorities were also junked, because “the prosecution’s evidence failed to establish that any of the accused herein actually engaged in violent acts during the rally,” the judge said.
That there was even a trial in the first place – more so lasted two years – was also a form of injustice, according to netizens on Twitter. The social media platform was instrumental in pooling finances to pay the bail of the San Roque 21. – Rappler.com